WWE: Apollo Crews and wrestling’s toxic relationship with ethnicity

WWE, Apollo Crews (photo courtesy of WWE)
WWE, Apollo Crews (photo courtesy of WWE) /

Apollo Crews debuted a new persona on Friday Night SmackDown that forces us to investigate some uneasy questions about professional wrestling.

On Friday night, Apollo Crews introduced a much-needed character change. The former WWE United States Champion has been on the main roster for about five years but for the most part, he has lacked a definitive character. However, his return to his ancestral and indie wrestling roots raises some questions about race and an industry that has a dubious track record with the subject.

Crews is a phenomenal talent. The Auburn alum has an eye-catching physique, incredible strength, and the speed and agility of a cruiserweight. But like many Black wrestlers, he often got stereotyped as a prototypical athletic worker with no personality. In truth, he was never allowed to develop into anything more than a smiling do-gooder.

That’s why his brief feud with Andrade and stint with the United States Championship was a breath of fresh air for the performer who has so much untapped potential. His current heel turn is even more of a step in the right direction because he desperately needed to do something different. Even more, his Uhaa Nation character from Dragon Gate put him on WWE’s radar so it made sense to present an updated version to the company’s mainstream audience.

On another positive note, it was nice to see a wrestler on network television take pride in his Nigerian heritage, but that’s where this gets a little complicated. Pro wrestling doesn’t handle race or the nuance around the subject well. On the surface, this is an interesting direction to go in that could be as compelling as Roman Reigns’ recent use of his Samoan culture to finally step out of the shadow of The Shield. However, this undeniably fits the same arrogant foreigner gimmick that has become an overused trope in the genre.

Now, Crews is of Nigerian descent as both of his parents are from the African country. In fact, Uhaa is his real last name. So, why did most fans just find out about that aspect of his life? Why is it that most non-white wrestlers only bring up their ethnicity or pride in their homeland when they become a villain? That’s intrinsically problematic and it continues to cast a negative light on people of color who are anything other than proud Americans.

Think about other Superstars like Shinsuke Nakamura, Jinder Mahal, and Mustafa Ali and how they became unabashed symbols for their culture as a heel. Many of these same wrestlers spoke their truths in character and they’re meant to be jeered for it. Mahal’s Punjabi Celebration on the May 23, 2017 episode of SmackDown was beautiful and dynamic, but we hadn’t seen an Indian wrestler presented as well until he turned heel.

In a time where some detractors believe fans want to cheer for heels, isn’t it an odd decision to finally give Nigerians some form of representation on WWE programming who they’re not supposed to support? Are those fans supposed to see Crews’ new character as a bad guy in an industry that lacks many depictions of competent and unapologetic African American stars?

Speaking of, it was hard not to feel a little uncomfortable when Crews proclaimed he is a “real African American” to a chorus of piped-in boos. Yes, that statement has a legitimate anti-Black tone to it, which is troublesome in itself, but the fact that WWE sees that statement as something to encourage their fanbase to hate is sobering. Although this could all be Crews’ idea, putting a loaded conversation piece about the differences between African-born Americans and Black people in the hands of a crowd that reduces everything to a binary reaction might not be the best idea.

His claim to be a real African American while draped in the colors of the Nigerian flag was also coupled with some garden variety respectability politics that are used to silence Black people all the time. That’s seemingly fair game because we’re not supposed to like Crews, but WWE plays into similar rhetoric when they depict many of their Black Superstars as passive, jocular, and non-threatening. So, why would we see Crew’s defiance in the face of that pattern as a heel move? For that matter, why couldn’t he be this serious and proactive as a babyface?

It’s easy to say that this isn’t that serious because it’s just a character but Crews’ portrayal of a Nigerian American reinforces xenophobic beliefs in the wrong hands. This could be just what he needs to stray away from the monotonous rut he fell into but the implication of what he said on SmackDown matters. It matters to Black Americans and Nigerians who want to see themselves on WWE’s programming. Moreover, it also matters to viewers who don’t know anything about Nigeria. This is their first impression of what the country is actually like and wealth and polygamy probably aren’t the hallmarks of its culture.

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The Nation of Domination became a memorable act because it was so fresh and different at the time. That same gimmick doesn’t work as well today because Black wrestling fans are more visible than ever. The goal should be to market to them as opposed to treating them and self-pride as an outlier. Hopefully, Crews will find a niche that works with his new character but it’s hard to separate it from the precedents around race that persist in an industry where minorities still struggle to be seen.